Today’s world is all about tech.
Think about it: I’m writing this blog post from a pair of rectangles that can access all the knowledge in the known universe. I met my best friend when I was eleven years old– and we grew up a thousand miles apart, not meeting in person until seven years later. I live a thousand miles away from my family, but I can see their faces whenever I please, and can even go home for the weekend whenever I want (for a fee). Fifty years ago, most of this would have been unheard of. A century and two years ago, it would have all been completely impossible– the first commercial flight was in 1914.
And in light of all that technology, art can seem a little… useless. Whether or not we should have sent a poet, art didn’t get anyone to the moon. A degree in any of the arts, including English, is often considered less valuable than a STEM degree: sure, you can paint pretty pictures, but what has that done for the world?
How do we fit in, beyond the world of leisure?
Let’s go with the practical reasons first.
Art is good for you.
I’ve written before about kids who read. Not only is it awesome for building language skills (clear communication and vocabulary), reading builds empathy. For kids, reading makes up for so much of the life experience that separates them from adulthood: for adults the result is much the same, but their experience also offers insight into themselves as a reader.
But that’s reading. Who cares if your kid can draw pretty pictures? And how the hell will a good ear for music come in handy once you hit the real world?
For kids, art is a kickass way to help develop critical thinking and inventiveness as well as the basics like fine motor skills. It makes sense, right? If you spend a lot of time thinking outside the box, it becomes second nature. If you spend a lot of time thinking around a bunch of different boxes– or lots of different kinds of art, like music, sculpture, writing, painting– you become a lot more open-minded. (Related: I wish they taught creative writing in art class, not English class.)
But what about adults? If you’re a grown-up, hobbies reduce stress significantly. Reduced stress means not only do you live longer, but you have better memory, less indecisiveness, and sleep a lot easier. Pick up a paintbrush, go kick a soccer ball around, doodle on your lunch break. No, hobbies aren’t necessarily art, but here’s why you should have at least one artistic hobby: all those benefits kids get? They work on adults too.
Art helps you learn how to express yourself. This means more confidence, better communication in your relationships, even better expression in the business world. You become more observant of the world and better at interacting with it.
If CEOs knew what they were doing, they’d put an art studio next to the gym. Preferably shared with the company day-care, so the employees can learn a thing or two.
Philosophical reasons next.
Okay, but aside from better quality of life, what good is art? What does it do for the human race as a whole?
Well, writing is a long-celebrated way of exploring the consequences of various political ideologies, technologies, and what-ifs. And if you don’t think the world could use a little more empathy, you should probably do some more reading yourself. But photography, painting, sculpture– these are all methods we use to explore humanity itself. And yes, that can range from yarn-bombing to erecting giant buttplugs on the streets of France. Yarn-bombing explores peace and war; giant French buttplugs explore our polite discomfort in addition to being hilariously funny.
The commonality between yarn-bombing and buttplugs? They make us think about our relationship with things we wouldn’t normally process. Ever.
The current form of art that’s making news is comedy. Recent example: the career changes of Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart are a genuine loss for American media. Internationally, ISIS’s targeting of the Charlie Hebdo magazine (whatever you may think of their material) was a telling sign of their importance. Comedy is threatening: it exposes the ridiculousness of fearmongers and illegitimizes the claims of the absurd.
In other words, when we think with our hearts, sometimes we don’t make the best choices– we scare easily. When we think with our heads, sometimes we do horrible things– civilian casualties of war, for example.
Art makes our hearts talk to our heads. We have a gut reaction, and then we think about it. It’s that simple.
But what if I’m not into art?
Here’s the thing: even if you hate galleries, can’t stand Vivaldi, don’t get the appeal of books, you probably still like art.
Spend a lot of your time consuming media? Video games, television, or comic books? Are you a sports person, a nature enthusiast? Yoga lover? Health food nut? Or do you just spend your whole day in a box looking at pictures of Joe Biden eating a sandiwch?
Guess what. Art’s relative.
Television can make great art. Sitcoms are one of my guilty pleasures, even though they’re one of the more vapid genres. One of my all-time favorite TV shows is Scrubs, a sitcom-ish comedy about doctors. It follows a doctor as he daydreams his way from his internship to becoming an attending. You get to see his love life, his friendships, and all the wacky shenanigans he gets into along the way. It is one of the best examples of storytelling I’ve ever experienced.
Video games are also art. The Persona series by Shin Megami Tensei has, in addition to an amazing story, has deep themes of freedom, tenacity, and seeking out the truth. Epic Mickey has a soundtrack composed by Jim Dooley. Skyrim sports some excellent Nordic mythology and a full-on civil war, complete with (blatant) racial undertones.
They make our hearts talk to our heads.
Have you ever admired the beauty and athleticism of a perfect pass? Imagined what it was like to be the first explorer to discover a waterfall? Used yoga as a form of meditation?
That’s art. That’s all art. It’s not just paintbrushes and clay: those are just the mediums we use to explore those feelings. You don’t have to like what artists make to like art. If you’ve ever thought about your emotions, you can understand art.
Don’t tell me that’s useless.